I’ll rob Boyz II Men like I’m Micheal Bivins… I’ma stick Bobby for summa that Whitney money.
—50 Cent, “How to Rob”
It’s easy to see foreshadowing in Bobby Brown’s pre-teen rage throughout the video for “Mr. Telephone Man”; he seethes and grits his teeth and nearly beats up the title character. What’s a little tougher to see in the Jackson 5-style bubblegum is any sign that the five members of this proto-boy band would go on to revolutionize R&B in the early ‘90s, paving the way for the hard-edged R. Kellys of today. But starting with Brown’s solo career, through splinter group Bel Biv Devoe, through Bivins’ aforementioned signing of Boyz II Men, and on to solo discs by Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill, the members of New Edition were among the biggest proponents of the New Jack Swing sound, a new kind of R&B that eagerly embraced hip-hop swagger and arrogance, along with a revolutionary palette of thick, machinelike, aggressive sounds.
It’s hard to even imagine New Jack Swing from the world of “Cool It Now”, the first video on this five-track collection. It’s a world of girls in concealing pink angora, their feathered hair haloed in the sunset; a world of clean-cut boys in primary colors—in fact, from the title on down to the chaste hugs that constitute the cut’s romantic highlights, it’d most likely be mistaken for an abstinence PSA these days. Musically, it’s equally scrubbed, from Tresvant’s coy peach-fuzz lead to the immaculately harmonized hook to the digitized horns eager to put a little sunshine in your life. Though I can imagine white parents circa 1985 being a bit bewildered by the brief rap interlude, this is 99% pure teen-pop, and it’s really fun.
But even better is “Mr. Telephone Man”, with a smooth inner-city blues synth line and a classic case of spurned man’s disbelief: “Something must be wrong with my phone / ‘Cause my baby wouldn’t hang up on me!” It’s never your fault, is it, Bobby? But the video does the song’s concept one better by having the group attesting their woes to a pair of downtown line repairmen—one an ‘80s-staple Jewish nerd who throws up his hands and laughs at the boys’ foolishness, one a gentle giant who, in probably the most sublime moment on the entire disc, puts his work-gloved hand to his chest in wholehearted commiseration. We also get to see the group pop out some dance moves that any N’Sync fan would recognize these days, and as they smoothly swap verses there’s a much better showcase of their individual vocal gifts than on “Cool It Now”.
Musically, the complex, darker “If It Isn’t Love” is a great encapsulation of the shift that the advent of New Jack Swing brought on, but the video is an uninteresting dance-studio setpiece that seems, if not more dated than the earlier videos, then at least far more ripe for satire, from its slow-motion cutaways to its Flashdance-esque sprays of sweat. By the time we hit “Can You Stand the Rain”, made after Bobby Brown had left the group and been replaced by Johnny Gill, the smell of nadir is in the air—and I’m not talking Ralph. The track is bland, the video is a directionless (and seemingly directorless) mishmash of grim tableaux, and, though many would differ, Gill’s more traditional deep-soul purr is no replacement for Brown’s gale-force emoting.
Though its message of romantic uplift is insipid, “I’m Still in Love with You” (from 1996’s Home Again) does bring New Edition into the modern era in other respects—the track itself is only slightly more Luther Vandross than R. Kelly, and the video is a simply pimptastic spread of Venetian villas, suits white as snow, grand pianos, yacht parties, and (gasp!) nipples barely concealed by sheer dresses. It’s notable that, despite Brown’s return to the group for this “reunion” track, it’s still Tresvant who’s the lead, and his confident charisma is palpable. That he doesn’t still have a career is stark testimony to the fickleness of pop audiences. Sadly, we don’t get any further insight into the members of the band than what we can read into the videos—this disc includes no behind-the-scenes footage, no mini-documentaries, nothing but the five videos, but at its under-$10 price point it’s still a must for fans.
I’ve got to admit that the greatest attraction this disc held for me was in the kitsch-cum-rap history of the group’s early Members Only days, with the later stuff representing a bit of an uneven transition to various solo careers. New Edition and the producers that surrounded them can be largely credited with hacking out the path from “ABC” to “Ignition”, but not all of the work they did along the way stands on its own feet in the end. Me, I’m about to go jam “My Prerogative” and dance around in my Underoos. Peace out.